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Opening doors

Opening doors

From 7 to 9 October, Holyrood joined dozens of media organisations from across Europe in Brussels for ‘OPEN DAYS – European Week of Regions and Cities’, an annual four-day event during which cities and regions showcase their capacity to create growth and jobs, implement European Union cohesion policy, and emphasise the importance of the local and regional level for good European governance.

The event was created in 2003 when the Committee of the Regions (CoR) invited Brussels-based local and regional representations to the EU to open their doors to visitors. Moving on from the initial concept, the event has become a European networking platform for experts in regional and local development. Exchange of good practice in economic development and social inclusion, cross-border cooperation, public-private partnerships, regional innovation and community-led local development have become some of its many topics. Over the years, OPEN DAYS has grown into the key event on EU regional policy. It welcomes over 5,000 participants in October each year, including local, regional, national and European decision-makers and experts, for more than 100 workshops and debates, exhibitions and networking opportunities. In addition to the Brussels-based workshops, some 250 local events are run from September to November all over Europe.

The event was hosted by Johannes Hahn, EU Commissioner for Regional Policy, and Ramón Luis Valcárcel Siso, President of CoR, and was officially opened by José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission. The opening session included a panel debate on the central role of EU regional policy in propelling Europe’s recovery and growth.
Hahn commented: “This year’s OPEN DAYS is the launching pad for how we invest and plan our funds over the next seven years. [It] comes at a decisive moment for EU regional policy. Negotiations on the reform of the policy are at a final phase, while regions are working very closely with commission services to prepare the ground and present their strategies for the next generation of programmes. Our new, reformed policy offers the regions a real opportunity to invest in future growth and prosperity. This is about targeting investment priorities but at the same time building on the individual strengths of our cities and regions.

“Regional and local projects are better designed and identified at the subnational levels with the support of local and regional authorities and that is why we defend the multilevel governance. But we also have to keep in mind that the level of decentralised powers is not the same in all EU countries.”

The event went under the slogan ‘Europe’s regions and cities taking off for 2020’ this year, with 100 workshops focusing on themes such as managing change 2014-20, the innovative approaches to fulfilling future investment priorities; synergies and co-operation, exploring the difference between different EU, national and regional policies and combining different sources of funding. Various approaches to cooperation were examined, such as macro-regional strategies, or between national, regional and city administrations and expert institutions.

Participants came from all over Europe, including Scotland, to debate issues and share best practice. In terms of the contribution to Scotland from the EU’s regional policy, structural funds programmes are well under way with hundreds of projects across the country. According to the European Commission, the resources being made available are allowing the focus of structural funds on Scottish priorities and strategies and will assist the economy during difficult times.

Scotland benefits from two EU regional policy programmes: the ‘Highlands and Islands of Scotland’ convergence programme and the ‘Lowlands and Uplands of Scotland’ competitiveness programme. The latter, with a European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) contribution of €376m, covers eastern, western and southern Scotland. The programme combines a strategic focus on research, innovation and enterprise development with geographical targeting of deprived areas in urban and rural areas. Resources have been allocated to financial engineering instruments both for investment in SMEs and in urban regeneration projects. The programme for the Highlands and Islands region with an ERDF contribution of €122m, is focused on enhancing business competitiveness and innovation and the key drivers of sustainable growth (including research and higher education) and on assisting peripheral and fragile areas.

Stewart Maxwell MSP is a member of the Committee of the Regions, representing the Scottish Parliament. He has been involved since 2010 and is also a full member for CoR’s EDUC and the ENVI commission.

Speaking to Holyrood after the opening session of the OPEN DAYS event in the European Parliament, Maxwell said: “I have a variety of roles but fundamentally, my job is to represent the [Scottish] Parliament in the Committee of the Regions. It is a body which, effectively, represents the layer of democratic accountability below the member state. The Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, as well as councils and local authorities in the UK are represented. It is an extremely extensive portfolio which covers everything the European Parliament and the European Commission cover.

“Scotland should always be represented where there are decisions being taken which will affect the people of Scotland. Someone should always be in there, fighting our corner in the general sense. It is important because this body now has a legal status in the European set up. The European Parliament and the commission has to pay attention to the CoR and ask its opinion on a number of things, though that doesn’t meant they always agree. Prior to that change, the CoR was a weak body but it has more influence now. It probably needs to be reformed further but it has more influence now. In a general sense, there are important things which are being discussed here which have a specific effect on people’s lives and legislation that is coming up, and the amount of money which comes from Europe.

“There are also very specific reasons why it is important to have Scottish representation on CoR. For example, what we do with our waste, what our fishermen can do. The specific example I’d give is one I was heavily involved in for a time. The European Parliament and commission were looking at household water. A draft paper was prepared – we call them opinions – and by chance, it had been given to someone from a southern Mediterranean country to write. What you are supposed to do is ask widely among lots of people across the CoR, outside and experts before you write it. That paper talked about the big problems with drought in Europe, it talked about why water had to be in private hands, there should be a subsidy for northern European and southern European countries in terms of water pricing. It had a whole raft of things that frankly, didn’t sit well with Scotland. That was one where I was vehemently against, I managed to speak to one or two people, it was very late on before I saw the paper but I argued against parts of the report, and received support from Austrians, Germans and Scandinavians, other northern European countries, particularly about the flooding issues and the north/south subsidy which they were opposed to. In the end we managed to get that draft removed and completely rewritten.

“That’s an example of where, if we weren’t there – even if people from other parts of the UK are – our particular circumstances wouldn’t have been taken into account.”

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